After just two starts with the Phillies this season, Jerome Williams has a new lease on life. More interestingly, he has had an epiphany of sorts and it comes just in time.
Yes, nine years into his big-league career while pitching for his seventh different team, including his third team this season, Williams took a three-hit shutout into the eighth inning of Monday's game against the Mariners even though he entered the tilt with a 2-5 record and a 6.51 ERA.
So, how was Williams able to spin a gem in the Phillies’ 4-1 win over Seattle on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park?
“Chooch,” Williams said. “That was basically it. Just working with [catcher Carlos Ruiz] I’m doing things I never did before this year. He has confidence in me to do it and I have confidence to go out there and do it.”
Ruiz, of course, has a reputation as the catcher that pitchers love to throw to. Roy Halladay couldn’t heap enough praise on his favorite catcher and others swear by Ruiz’s ability to instill confidence and call a game.
Williams either didn’t have a catcher he could trust or wasn’t ready to change his ways. As a result, Williams has spent the last few seasons as a baseball nomad, pitching in the big leagues for Texas and Houston this season, the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 and 2013, and the independent league Lancaster Barnstormers in 2011.
Since pitching for Lancaster, Williams also has pitched for teams in Salt Lake City, San Bernadino and Round Rock, Texas. Since breaking in with the Giants in a game at the Vet in 2003, Williams has pitched for eight big-league organizations and has probably rented apartments in more cities than most folks could name.
At least for the time being, Williams is happy he landed in Philadelphia.
“I was hard-headed and that got me released from two teams,” Williams said. “Right now with this team and Chooch behind the plate, it’s night and day. Whatever he puts down I’m going to be committed to it.”
Against the Mariners, Williams showed flashes of the brilliance that made him a highly-touted prospect with the Giants over a decade ago. After a two-out double by Dustin Ackley in the third inning, Williams didn’t give up a hit until the seventh. Though he walked four hitters, only Ackley made it past first base.
Williams retired 11 of the last 13 he faced and had a two-strike count on Chris Taylor to start the eighth before plunking him with a pitch. At 94 pitches and seven-plus innings, the most he’d thrown in a game in nearly a calendar year, manager Ryne Sandberg turned it over to the ‘pen.
“He was solid. He had minimal base runners out there and was pretty stress-free for him,” Sandberg said. “He was able to move the pitches around and the second and third time through the lineup he mixed in some off-speed stuff and threw strikes with all his pitches. It was an outstanding job.”
And maybe a bit of surprise considering how things went for Williams this season. He opened the season with Houston and was designated for assignment in June after 26 appearances — all in relief. A month later, Williams appeared in two games with Texas before being designated for assignment a second time.
In his last game for the Rangers he gave up 10 runs on 13 hits and three walks in a 12-2 loss to Cleveland. Whatever the Phillies saw that made them want to snap up Williams shortly after Texas let him go, has been on display in his two starts.
“Obviously my game plan wasn’t working earlier in the year, that’s why I’m on my third team,” Williams said. “So we’re just using the same weapons that I have, but we’re moving the ball anywhere and everywhere. I’m having success with it and I never really had much success earlier, so I’m going to stick with it.”
Monday, he struck out four hitters, threw 16 first-pitch strikes to the 26 he faced and got nine ground-ball outs. In 12 1/3 innings with the Phillies over two starts, Williams is 1-0 with a 2.19 ERA, seven strikeouts and four walks.
He hasn’t posted numbers like that since going 6-0 with a 2.91 ERA for Lancaster in 2011.
“I was hoping I could have turned it around earlier, but I was hard-headed and I didn’t do that,” Williams said. “Right now, with Chooch behind the plate, I’m not shaking him off at all. He’s been around a lot and I’m just going to trust him and do the things we can do to be successful.”
Ruiz, meanwhile, batted in the No. 2 spot in the lineup and drew a career-best three walks. He scored the first run of the game when Marlon Byrd drove him in on a two-out double in the third.
Darin Ruf also contributed to the cause with a single, double and walk and was on base when Andres Blanco belted a three-run homer with one out in the fifth for what proved to be the game-winner.
Believe it or not, early one-run and three-run leads were all Williams needed.
“Hopefully this opportunity here, pitching well in the first two games, can continue,” Williams said.
“I’ve been hard-headed all my life. My dad used to call me a hard head. But you have to accept change and I didn’t accept change until I wasn’t in baseball and I had to work harder to get back. I’m accepting change now because I’m having this success. If I hadn’t accepted it, I would have been gone. I didn’t have good results.”
The Phillies and Mariners play the middle game of the series on Tuesday night when A.J. Burnett (6-13, 4.35) takes on right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (11-6, 2.72).